Six impossible things

Mind the Plot Gap

Sorry this is so late to post; it has been one of those weeks.

This is one last plotting post, mostly trying to get at Deep Lurker’s problem of “how to get to the end” when the general endpoint is a known quantity.

The two main sources of this problem tend to be either insufficient planning due to impatience – the writer wants to get started now, and skimps on development, even though he/she is not a pantser – or having a too-general (for that writer) outline that has left a yawning empty gap between some mid-point crisis and the known ending.

One possible solution is to work out a more detailed plot outline. The fractal approach is often useful here: starting with the log line (“An unlikely group of misfits joins the rebel forces and eventually succeeds in destroying the Empire’s super-ship”) and expanding it into a paragraph; then expanding the paragraph into a page; the page into three or five pages; the five pages into ten or twenty pages. You can stop at any point when you think you have “enough” – for some, that’ll be two pages, for others, it’ll be fifty. (For pantsers, the log line is usually plenty, but this isn’t about them.)

The fractal method works pretty well unless you notice that there’s one paragraph that never seems to get expanded (“The Falcon is caught by the Death Star’s tractor beam and the gang is almost captured. They succeed in escaping and…”). That’s where the gap is, the “with a mighty leap, he sprang out of the pit” that doesn’t actually explain how they did it. For a lot of writers, having something like this in the outline/notes works just fine as long as we know it is there. When I know up front that my characters will have to escape something at X point, my backbrain works at it in the background while I’m writing my way up to it. It’s only when the gap comes as a surprise that it gets nasty.

Other writers, though, need the details. There are a couple of ways of scaring them up.

The first one is: work backwards. Start with the ending you know you want to get to, and take a tiny baby step backwards to see what needs to have happened just before that end point. You know that Luke is going to blow up the Death Star in your climax. What needs to happen first? He needs a Tie fighter and he needs to know where to aim. Where can he get them? The rebels have ships; Princess Leia and R2-D2 have the plans for the Death Star, which the rebels can analyze to find a weakness. So Luke has to find the rebels and take the princess and robot to them so they can tell him where to aim. Etc.

At some point, you will probably realize that some of this connects to the situation the characters are currently hung up in. Luke needs the Princess, who is captive on the Death Star – and oh, look, Luke and Han just got caught by the Death Star themselves, so they’re at least all in the same place. It still isn’t obvious how to get them out of the situation, so this is where I start making lists. The first one is, “what MUST happen for them to escape,” the second is “stuff that MIGHT happen while they are in this place,” and the third is “what they have to work with.”

The first list is usually pretty short – in this case, it’s “disable tractor beam, rescue princess, get everyone back to ship, open cargo doors and take off.” It doesn’t tell me how they’re going to do this stuff, just that this is the bare minimum of stuff they absolutely must do. The second list is a lot longer and includes things that are mutually exclusive, like  “sneak around without being seen” and “get caught and tortured.” The final list has everything from work robots to Storm Troupers to construction equipment to garbage disposal chutes to dormitories and cafeterias  – all the people and places and things that ought to be lying around on a ship this big, some of which might be useful.

The next thing is to get the characters moving. Preferably in the right direction, but you can always back them up a few paragraphs or pages if they seem about to get themselves blown up. If they’re trapped by Storm Troopers in a corridor on the Death Star, you don’t necessarily need to know how they get off the Death Star; you need them to figure out how to defeat or escape the Storm Troopers…oh, look, a garbage disposal chute…

The exact level of detail you want will vary, writer to writer. Some would be fine with “The Falcon is caught by the Death Star. They sneak past the Storm Troopers, disable the tractor beam, and rescue the princess, then escape to the rebel base.” Other writers want a couple of pages detailing who is doing what where during the whole sequence.

Another trick that sometimes works with a really stuck situation is to slow way down and baby-step forward, using simple three-to-five-word sentences. “They sit on the floor.” “Someone knocks on the door.” “The door opens.” “A man is there.” “He is in armor.” This gives you more time to think about what is happening, how each character will respond, and what your options are. Or do the baby-step thing, only forwards: “The characters are stuck in a trash compactor, which starts to squish them. What can they do? Try to jam the walls. Find the control panel. Use the communicator to talk to someone else who can shut off the trash compactor…” If there is no one else in position to help, you may need to back up a few scenes or chapters and plant them in position. Or think of some other small tweak that you could plant earlier (or that you already put in as a throwaway, but you can now use to get them out of this now). It is also occasionally useful to consider the directions you don’t want the story to go; turning them upside down or inside out can often provide the twist you’re looking for. (I don’t want ninjas to jump in the window…wait, what if it wasn’t ninjas? Not pirates, either…  Ghosts? No, kittens!)

A lot of this is slogging, trying out (in outline) various possible paths and switching them up repeatedly in different combinations. And if what you are doing doesn’t work, try something else.

  1. “Try something else”… yes! I’ve racked my brain trying to come up with plot details and really struggling with how to make it all work, beating myself up for my incompetence, only to eventually realize that it’s not working for a REASON — namely, that it just plain sucks. Scrap it and go in another direction.

  2. Thank you! This is all very helpful.

  3. On further consideration, my BIG problem isn’t the paragraph that refuses to expand, but rather the key paragraph that my backbrain wants to see expanded first: The part that flips the story-problem from being intractable to tractable. Or to use the Lego analogy, putting together that one double-sided Lego piece that makes the impossible-to-build structure possible.

    In the Star Wars example, it’s “How can the rag-tag rebel misfits destroy the Empire’s Invincible Super-Ship?” Once I have an answer – “The secret plans, once analyzed, will show a thermal exhaust port that’s vulnerable to a small one-man fighter” – I can carry on. All the other problems are then only ordinary-hard.

    Now this post does help with that BIG problem, as well as being more broadly helpful with lesser forms of stuck. For which I thank you again. (The baby-steps and the three-part-list in particular are tricks I expect to be making quite a bit of use of.)

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